Winter's tentacles are slithering our way and the cold, dark months lie ahead like a slippery blob, blocking the track. April has been a wet month, and at Tapanui Downs, that means mud. Inches of it caked on to our boots. It seemed to get dark and cold suddenly this year. Last year it was a balmy autumn and late starting winter. But this year, the light seemed dimmer overnight, and somewhat oppressive. We've been in that lull between summer and winter, a blank space in which the earth is changing gear and the first log fire is yet to be lit. Everything is getting ready for hibernation or dying off for the winter. It's a slow letting go, a kind of death which thankfully, results in spring's regeneration.
What do bumblebees do for the winter? They've been bumbling around in the cold, like a flying toy with an almost-flat battery, and slowly becoming absent. I found one yesterday, and it seemed to be the last one left. Too cold or old or flat to do anything, it just sat unmoving on a delphinium. Click.
One good thing about the creeping cold is the diminishing bug population. During the hot summer, hordes of moths and midges flock to the house lights, leaving a layer of grease on everything. The spider population grows correspondingly. Outside, the house is wallpapered in spider webs, while inside, large, growing families live in all the choicest nooks.
I realise now there are benefits to living in a climate which has frosty winters, as it culls the bug population by springtime. The second half of this summer gave me my first real taste of garden pests. The two noticeable culprits were the green caterpillar (and its white butterfly incarnation) which turned many leaves into lace-work, and a grey mildewy thing which coated the delphiniums. I even found my first snails and slugs. Only a few, but not something we've had until now.
I used a garlic and pyrethrum spray on the green caterpillars which were decimating the alyssum in the verandah boxes, and next day found them melting on the ground. This life and death aspect of gardening, and of life itself, I find very contradictory and for this reason would never make a decisive farmer. Being aware of, appreciating and even loving insects and then having to go and kill some of them is for me an unresolved contradiction. The slug I found eating a delphinium I kind of pushed under the house, hoping it wouldn't come back - and it didn't. I just wonder if I pushed it a little too hard. The snails I usually relocate to the paddock. I realise that if you were hit with a plague of them this may not be a practical approach. That's one reason I am really grateful to birds and hedgehogs, not to mention the chooks (although the chooks have now been banned from the garden) - at least it comes naturally to them.
Well, sometimes the answers come instantly. I just looked up mildew in an organic gardening book, and there found a non-killing approach to the green caterpillar problem. Companion planting with tomatoes, sage, thyme, rosemary, and hyssop which serve as repellents. Whether these will really work, I am yet to verify.
The delphiniums, I sprayed with baking soda, water and soap, but as I did not continue the remedy, becoming side-tracked by non-gardening things, the Thing took over and left them looking very ill. Yesterday, I saved the last of the sickly but still pretty flowers for the vase, and chopped the diseased plants back to the base. I separated them out from the green waste destined for the compost heap, and dumped them in a separate place, just in case the mildew (?) survived to reinfect the garden next year.
Surprisingly, despite the weak sun and lingering wetness, the garden is looking nice again. All the caterpillar damage has been chopped out, and there are several autumn bloomings including some smaller, delicate delphiniums in the rockery (well, what we call the rockery). I've had time to tidy up, and the large-scale post New Year pruning is now rewarding us with, among other things, a long shapely privet hedge, glowing with emerald green regrowth.
The red climbing rose - really she has always been Queen of the garden - has gone on to produce long arms of soft red regrowth, and until the cold snap hit, she was crowned with a wreath of perfect blooms.
Discovery is meant for the beginner home gardener and advice contained here-in should not be used where more professional advice may be more appropriate.